Celebrating Trailblazing African American Attorneys

Making an Impact in the Legal Profession

According to the 2020 American Bar Association Profile of the Legal Profession Report, the number of people of color entering the law profession is increasing. However, African Americans still only make up 5% of all lawyers in the US, despite comprising 13.4% of the overall population. This underrepresentation highlights the need for greater strides in diversity, fostering just outcomes, reducing bias, and breaking down barriers for people of color. Today, we want to honor nine remarkable African American attorneys who have shaped the world through their tenacity and determination.

Jane Bolin: A Woman of Many “Firsts”

Jane Bolin, our first trailblazer, achieved several groundbreaking accomplishments. She not only became the first black judge in US history, but she also holds the distinction of being the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School and join the New York City Bar Association and Law Department. Despite facing initial hurdles, such as being denied admission to Vassar College due to racial discrimination, she graduated from Wellesley College and went on to defy expectations by being accepted into and graduating from Yale Law School in 1931. As a judge, Bolin fought tirelessly for children’s rights, education, and the battle against racism.

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Johnnie Cochran: The Masterful Defender

Johnnie Cochran, a name synonymous with legal history, gained widespread recognition for his brilliant defense in the OJ Simpson case. Representing other notable celebrities like Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Tupac, Cochran’s strategic and controversial approach highlighted the LAPD’s ineptitude and racism, ultimately leading to OJ’s acquittal. Cochran’s journey began in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, with his great-grandparents as former slaves and his grandfather as a sharecropper. Through his parents’ hard work and determination, Cochran pursued higher education at UCLA and Loyola Law School. He quickly established himself as one of Los Angeles’s top trial lawyers, renowned for his theatrical courtroom style and influential catchphrases like “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”

Barack Obama: From the Classroom to the Presidency

Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, possesses an impressive legal background. As a Harvard Law School graduate and the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama’s commitment to fighting discrimination and advocating for voting rights is evident. He worked as an associate attorney at an Illinois law firm before accepting a teaching position at the University of Chicago Law School. In 2007, Obama embarked on his historic presidential campaign, ultimately becoming one of the most celebrated presidents in history.

Willie Gary: Taking on Corporate Giants

Dubbed the “Giant Killer,” Willie Gary has achieved monumental victories against corporate behemoths that seemed impossible to defeat. Most notably, Gary secured a $240 million settlement against Disney for two individuals who claimed their original idea for the Wide World of Sports complex was stolen. Throughout his career, he has obtained numerous other high-profile settlements totaling over $30 billion. Prior to making national headlines, Gary opened the first African American law firm in his Florida town. Today, he continues to practice law while inspiring audiences with his motivational speeches.

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Charles Hamilton Houston: The Man Who Ended Segregation

Known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow,” Charles Hamilton Houston played a pivotal role in dismantling segregation. As the only black student in his class, Houston personally experienced the effects of racial segregation. Following in his father’s footsteps, he graduated from Harvard Law School and joined his father’s law practice. Houston not only fought against Jim Crow laws but also became a prominent mentor for black attorneys, notably guiding Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice. Even at 91 years old, Charles Hamilton Houston remains an essential figure in civil rights history.

Fred Gray: Defending Civil Rights Icons

Fred Gray, a landmark-setting civil rights attorney, earned the accolade of “The Man Who Defended Rosa Parks.” Gray worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. during the early stages of the civil rights movement. He played a crucial role in Rosa Parks’s famous refusal to comply with segregation laws on a city bus, ultimately leading to the Browder v Gayle case, which declared bus segregation unconstitutional. Gray’s contributions to civil rights extend beyond this iconic moment, and he continues to make a lasting impact in the legal profession.

Star Jones: From Prosecutor to Trailblazing TV Host

Star Jones, well-known as one of the original hosts of The View, left an indelible mark on daytime talk shows. With a multi-generational group of co-hosts engaging in spirited discussions on various topics, The View owes much of its ongoing success to Star’s legacy. Prior to her television career, Jones served as a prosecutor with the Kings County Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn. Her no-nonsense approach and undeniable charisma led to her starring in her own court show, making her the first black court show judge in history.

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Paving the Way for the Future

Thanks to the courageous efforts of these revolutionary lawyers, the legal industry has made significant strides towards diversity and inclusivity over the past century. However, there is still work to be done to improve representation and ensure a more varied dialogue. A diverse legal profession benefits both lawyers and their clients by incorporating different perspectives and life experiences. Embracing tools like Lawmatics, an all-in-one legal client intake, law practice CRM, marketing automation, and legal billing software, can help law firms take a modern approach that values diversity, prioritizes client relationships, and leads to extraordinary outcomes. Ready to see how Lawmatics can elevate your firm’s client relationships? Sign up for a free demo today!